I had hoped to post on Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novel Manservant and Maidservant in time for the Slaves of Golconda group read, but I didn’t get the book read on time and was on vacation anyway. But I wanted to write about it at least briefly. It’s kind of an odd book, in a good way, and it made me think a lot about dialogue and conversation. The book has tons of dialogue in it and much of it struck me as the sort of conversation you wouldn’t hear in real life. But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. It seems to me there is a kind of novelistic dialogue that is unrealistic in a bad way — painfully awkward, stilted, florid, dull, etc. But there is a kind of unrealistic dialogue that is … interesting and that serves some larger point. I’m not entirely sure what the larger point here is, but somehow the dialogue, strange as it sometimes is, reveals important truths about the characters and gets ideas out on the page in a dramatic way.
The novel has a very tight focus — one main family with children and servants, one other family and a couple other characters and that’s it. The book is made up of conversations and some narration to connect all the talk. There is little context — little description of places, no historical or social background, not much but talk and internal conflict. This means that we are thrown into the world of relationships.
It’s the fact that these relationships are so interesting that makes this book work. As you would guess from the title, master/servant relationships are a big focus; the servants argue amongst themselves about their status relative to each other and also to their employers. The family gossips and worries about what the servants are doing. But the biggest source of conflict comes from the father, Horace Lamb, who terrorizes his wife, his cousin, his servants, and his five children. He makes their lives miserable through his miserliness, pestering, and suspicion. The novel’s plot lies in the telling of how the family responds to this abuse. What was so fascinating is that it captures little interactions between people in a way that seems perfectly true to life, even if the dialogue does not. It portrays jealousy, anger, sadness, suspicion, love, regret, hope, disappointment, and much else in a manner I don’t think I’ve seen in a novel before.
I wonder, though, about my claim that the dialogue is unrealistic. The number of people I have talked to or overheard in my life is very, very small compared to the number of people out there talking, so who am I to say that people don’t really talk that way?